Many first-time writers choose first person to tell their story because it looks easy and natural. However, it’s not always the best choice.
A first person narrative can only tell the reader what the narrator knows. It limits the amount and type of information we as writers can deliver.
This natural limitation makes first person very useful for some kinds of fiction such as puzzle stories (e.g. police procedurals), experiential discovery fiction (young adult novels, romance, coming out tales), and stories dependent upon sudden reversals (tales of sociopathy, madness, and the supernatural). It’s a real obstacle to the kind of fiction–sweeping historical epics, say, or aftermath stories (e.g. what happens in a small town after a big accident)–which relies on a light touch with a large cast.
Many crime novels are puzzle stories. In first person we can control what the narrator sees, hears, and smells, and so can feed clues judiciously to the reader, expertly tuning the information flow and narrative pace, and guiding the journey to a solution. However, if all we want to deliver to the readers is an intellectual puzzle, it’s better to stick to third person. First person is all about character: not only does the reader know (intellectually) what the narrator knows, she also feels (emotionally) and senses (viscerally) all that the narrator experiences. The reader has access to all of it.
This is why first person also works so well for some kinds of young adult fiction. Adolescents are discovering many things for the first time: peer pressure, sex, notions of selfhood and fear of failure. Readers of this genre often expect, to some degree, to live and breathe with the young narrator as she makes her discoveries. Walking where she walks, feeling what she feels–that first frisson of yearning, the wonder of driving alone, the agony of waiting for the college acceptance letter–it’s all part of the genre experience. (I’ll talk another time about genre and the various sets of reader expectations, and how to mess with them. Rules exist to be played with…)
My favorite use for first person is an unreliable narrator. If we do our jobs well, readers won’t question the narrator’s perspective, they’ll simply believe what the narrator tells them, even though sometimes he’s misinformed, or lying, or crazy. For the reader, the deliciousness of this kind of story is that moment when they stumble over–sometimes alongside the narrator, sometimes despite him–a piece of information that changes the entire story. Think of that moment in The Sixth Sense when we find out that Malcolm is dead. It turns us inside out like a sock.
All these nifty tricks we can play with first person rely on maintaining a tightly focused point of view, staying in close and personal. One way to do this (there are many) is to avoid anything generic or clichéd. It’s not a gun, it’s a Glock 19. It’s not a magazine, it’s American Cheerleader. She doesn’t walk, she ambles. He’s not wearing jeans, he’s wearing Edun. Be specific, be particular. It’s astonishing how quickly that brings a character into focus.
In first person, one of the first choices we have to make about character is between major or minor actor, that is, the hero or the sidekick. So whose story do you want to tell? That of Xena or Gabrielle? Frankenstein or the monster? Jane or the madwoman in the attic? They’re all different.
Point of view is a huge topic that can be explored from a variety of perspectives. We’ll be revisiting it many times. See, for example, Kelley’s editcast.
Posted by: Nicola